Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Goodness Sakes! Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally!

This is old news to my friends on Facebook, but yesterday morning my status was asking non-math folks what was confusing about the order of operations.

(Warning: Math review)

For those who don't remember, that's:
1. Operations inside grouping symbols
2. Exponents
3. Multiplication and division
4. Addition and subtraction

(That's the super-simplified version, which is as complicated as we get in 7th grade.)

I have kids who seem to be struggling with it (confirmed by the quiz results yesterday, by the way), and this is one place where I'm at a loss as to how it is confusing or difficult.

Fractions, I get. I remember what confused me about fractions. That memory serves as a nice jumping-off point for finding other ways working with fractions might be confusing or difficult. Decimals, long division, even multiple-digit whole number multiplication. Yes, I get it.

Heck, I can even related to that panic one might feel when asked "What's 6 times 7?"

But the Order of Operations? C'mon! What's difficult about it?

There had to be an answer, of course, as I have so many kids who struggled on a quiz where the only steps needed were the last two (multiplication/division and addition/subtraction). I tried to take math fact fear out of the equation by making the first four problems along the lines of 3 + 2 x 5... I mean, who doesn't know 2 x 5 (or even 5 x 5, should you not remember to do the multiplication first)? Who doesn't know 3 + 10 (or 3 + 2, should you think the addition goes first)?

So the cool thing is this: lots of help from the Facebook friends.

The first was a reminder that some students are going to be freaking out about the arithmetic involved, no matter how simple it might be.

The next was the confusion as to why the Order of Operations exists--when you're working with one operation, you just go from left to right, and you don't even have to worry about that when working with addition and multiplication.

Exponents in the presence of parenthesis can be confusing--which is something I can keep in mind as we delve deeper into the whole Order of Operations thing.

A couple of people gave ideas as to how to make it "easier to remember" or "easier to understand" beyond the whole mnemonic device I used as the title of this post (although usually it's "Please Excused My Dear Aunt Sally," but as students get older some people change "Parenthesis" to "Grouping Symbols").

And one math-phobe expressed she found the Order of Operations easy to understand (comforting, even), because it was a simple list.

Oh, and lots of funny comments from my non-math friends, too.

So I think I have found a new way to irritate my Facebook friends and also get some insight into what's confusing or difficult for my kids--I mean, I have an imagination, and I do use that to figure out where the kids might get confused. However, extra brains on the task can't be a bad thing, right?

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